Students Lead the Way: A Vote in Favor of Reparations for Slavery


In the United States, the debate over a national reparations program for slavery and Jim Crow has until now encountered political opposition. However, transitional justice approaches at the community level are increasingly surfacing to address racial injustice. A handful of 2020 presidential candidates have come out in support of reparations for slavery.

Recently, Georgetown University took center stage in this debate when its student body voted in favor of a student-led initiative to establish a fee that will fund education and health care programs for the descendants of 272 enslaved persons sold by the university in 1838.  Although the fee is a relatively modest one—$27.20, a reference to the number of slaves—its stated purpose of reconciliation is praiseworthy. Through their votes, the students sought to “do more than simply recognize the past.” They resolved to “change our future.”

The university has publicly apologized for its actions and offered admissions preferences to the over 8,000 identified descendants of the men, women, and children who were shipped off to plantations in Louisiana to help pay down the university’s debts. Several descendants have taken advantage of that program and enrolled as students. The university has also implemented other symbolic reparations measures, such as renaming two campus buildings that had honored former presidents of the university who participated in the sale of human beings. The buildings are now named for Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft, respectively the first slave listed in the sale records and the founder in 1820 of a school for black girls.

More and more educational institutions are facing up to their culpability for human rights crimes against people of African descent. In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, over 50 universities have made a commitment to confronting their role in slavery and racism, with a number of them taking concrete steps to address their impact today. Following a yearlong study, the University of Glasgow concluded in 2018 that it had accepted the equivalent of $258 million in today’s money from people who profited from slavery and agreed to create a center for the study of slavery and a memorial in the name of the enslaved. The University of Virginia is currently erecting a memorial to the enslaved persons who built and worked on its campus in Charlottesville. And Yale University finally rededicated a residential college formerly named after John C. Calhoun, a U.S. Senator and Vice President who was an ardent proponent of slavery.

Georgetown University, however, will be doing more than investigating and acknowledging the horrors of slavery. Rather, the fund that the student-written referendum proposes will seek to make a “meaningful financial commitment” to the descendants of the slaves for the “involuntary sacrifices” of their ancestors. To do that, the proceeds of the “Reconciliation Contribution” will be allocated for “charitable purposes directly benefiting the descendants of the 272 enslaved persons.” When distributing the funds, special consideration is to be given to proposals that support “proud and underprivileged communities, such as in Maringouin [Louisiana].”

Endowing the fund with both tangible benefits and symbolic meaning comes with tricky questions. What types of benefits should it pay for (monetary, health care, education, legal assistance, job training, memorialization projects)? Will individual descendants be eligible for direct benefits or will benefits only be paid collectively, e.g., to the communities where descendants live?  Will African-American residents in all locations associated with the Jesuits plantations be able to apply? What will the over 8,000 descendants and their communities need to do to qualify? What can be done to ensure that the operations of the fund remain true to the purpose underlying the fund—acknowledgment for the underlying crime of slavery and the institutionalized segregation and discrimination that followed?

In places around the world, private institutions, citizens, and local and national governments have grappled with these hard questions while designing processes (and application forms) for implementing reparative programs fairly and meaningfully. What is important is to ensure that the registration process is well thought out, meets the needs of the intended beneficiaries, is open and transparent, and is, as much as possible, reparative in effect. 

Georgetown has shown both moral and intellectual honesty by acknowledging and providing symbolic reparations for the wrongs it committed. The task now is to find a way to fulfill the promise made by its students to the descendants of the 272 slaves.​

Because its students chose to take collective responsibility for the wrongs of the past, Georgetown has momentum and many good options available to it. It could match the total students’ contributions with an equal contribution of its own. It could provide full scholarships to the descendants who are admitted. It could also lead a call, similar to one in the United Kingdom, for universities in North America to create and contribute to a collective college fund that uses past donations traced to the slave trade to support minority students. It could also continue and expand its memorialization, research, and outreach efforts into the enduring consequences of slavery. Or, it could do all of these things.

How it responds is sure to move the needle on an issue that has eluded public debate and innovative solutions for far too long. If successful, Georgetown could produce a useful model for other institutions and corporate entities to emulate and even serve as an example for a future national reparation policy. 

PHOTO:Georgetown University's campus is located in Washington, DC, United States. (Daderot/Wikimedia).